An Audience Of One


I was giving a talk recently to a group of local parents. Good public speaker that I am, I have trained myself to scan the faces of the entire crowd. On this evening I noticed one woman sitting dead center to me. From word one, she was yawning. It was a little distracting. Whether I’m writing or speaking I want my audience to be entertained and engaged. I do not like to consider myself a sleep aid.

So I looked elsewhere. To my left were two couples who were all smiles. They nodded and made notes in their journals and laughed at all my jokes. This was nice, but they had clearly already climbed on board my train and were going to go wherever it was headed. However, to my right I noticed three mothers who listened closely but thoughtfully. They were not just going to hop on any old train. I respected this, and I found their reserve helpful. It asked me to focus even more, to remember more vividly what I found funny or inspiring about my stories.

I was enjoying the talk. If I needed a boost of encouragement I would look to the smiling couples, and when I was ready to be challenged again I would look to the thoughtful mothers. But occasionally I’d glance at the yawning woman. This was always a mistake. By the middle of the talk her eyes were drifting closed. In my mind she was becoming a critic, each yawn like a bad Amazon. As writers often do with their harshest critics, it was easy for me to allow her single yawn to negate every smile or laugh or thoughtful nod surrounding her. If I wasn’t careful I could make the entire talk about her, and it would be a failure.

Fortunately, I kept my attention moving, and the talk went well. Afterward, some of the parents came up to chat with me. The smiling couples thanked me and the thoughtful mothers told me some of their own ideas. Then the yawning woman appeared. “I have to apologize,” she said. “I was up all night last night with my kid.”

“No problem!” I said. “I’ve been there many times myself.” We commiserated for a bit on the challenges of midnight parenting. I was still glad I hadn’t allowed myself to give the talk to an audience of one as I had occasionally in the past. If you’re an artist, you’ve got to maintain a friendly relationship with your audience. I can’t say for sure that my most vocal and conspicuous critics are merely expressing their own private suffering, but it’s helpful to think so.

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